Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Sam and the Tigers

by Julius Lester; pictures by Jerry Pinkney. When I read this to Buddy Boy I immediately felt it was somehow familiar, but I couldn’t place where I had heard the story before. Was it a folktale that I had heard before? I just knew there was something about it. After Buddy was all tucked in and on his way to sleep I went back and read the fly leaf and the author’s note in the back of the book. Sure enough, Julius Lester explains that his story is a retelling of the Little Black Sambo story written by Helen Bannerman in 1899. Bannerman’s story was written for her daughters when she was living in India. It is about a child named Sambo who outsmarts some tigers and brings home a pot of butter for his mother to make pancakes. When the story was brought to American at the turn of the last century it was used to fuel stereotypes of African Americans and has been considered racist for many years. There is some controversy over a couple of rewrites of the story and many people still associate the Sambo character with racist depictions of Blacks. Lester says, however:
“the story transcended its stereotypes. For almost a century, children have enjoyed it. Jerry Pinkney and I read the story as children and recognized that Sambo was a black hero, but his name and how he was depicted took away his heroic status. … what other story had I read at age seven and remembered for fifty years? There was obviously an abiding truth in the story, despite itself.”

In Lester’s telling of the story Sam is clever, creative, thoughtful, joyful and courageous. He claims his outlandishly colored clothing as expressions of his spirit. His parents allow him to make choices in the marketplace and live with the responsibility entailed. When faced with hungry tigers Sam is able to outwit them and save himself from being eaten. He then manages to avoid further confrontation and successfully regains his prized clothing as the tigers turn on each other. Sam hurries on to school as the tigers chase each other into a blur of melted butter. On his way home he has the presence of mind to collect the butter and bring it home to his mother to make into pancakes for the whole neighborhood to enjoy. Lester’s story follows the original Sambo closely but the language and illustrations are filled with dignity and grace. This is a wise tale that will encourage children to go out into the wide world and come home triumphant. I am so glad Lester and Pinkney teamed up to publish this beautiful book!
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Don Tate II said...

I've read the black Sambo story, and am not offended. I think it's a fun story. Its the words Black Sambo, Black Mambo, and Black...whatever the other name is that jolts me.

cloudscome said...

Yes, you are right the character names are the part that carry the disturbing weight.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, what were your thoughts about the version Christopher Bing did that you linked to? Mine were quite mixed.

Grace Lin said...

that last comment was from me...didn't mean to be mysterious anonymous

cloudscome said...

Good questions Grace. I like Bing's illustrations but I don't like how he kept the names and the story exactly the same. E.J. McPherson of Ferris State U. in Michgan says, "Nonetheless, its not enough to simply improve the illustrations and multicultural context of this story, and think that its re-telling will not still offend, yet unhealed wounds. We should not accept seemingly innocuous new treatments of racist icons and symbols as progressive art. We cannot ignore their historical context as painful and offensive vestiges of America's undemocratic and inhumane racial legacy. This applies to all the nation's historically oppressed groups of ethnic newcomers, as well as the nation's first people. One-dimensional redress is inadequate, artistic pandering." McPherson Question of the Month Jim Crow Museum I like how Lester changed the character names and the story just enough to show strong Black characters in a strong Black family and community. The parents especially are shown as whole people working together to raise their son with wisdom, discipline, humor, freedom and responsibility. Lester added a lot of positives.